Can a diet totally devoid of animal protein be healthy for humans who are, by design, omnivores? Common sense would suggest not, but research begs to differ. A new study is just out, attesting to the fact that a stint of vegan eating boosts both heart health and weight loss, and without imposing restrictions on caloric intake. Could the annual January diet craze be in for a vegan overhaul? This would indeed be music to the ears of purveyors of carbohydrate foods, may they be potato growers, bakery manufacturers or noodle bars.
Healthier in just one week
Rarely has a diet come under such sustained and fervent criticism as the vegan diet. Not enough iron, zero vitamin B12, too little protein, lack of variety and, perish the thought, no dairy – surely this can’t be a healthy way to live?
However, plenty of evidence, much of it gleaned from population studies that reach back decades, suggests otherwise. For example, there is the oft-quoted Danish example, where, due to post-WW1 rationing, animal protein, fats and alcohol were severely restricted, forcing the population to subsist largely on potatoes, bread, barley and vegetables. As a result, the country recorded the lowest mortality rate from non-infectious chronic disease (this includes cardiovascular disease) in its entire history.
In November 2014, the Nutrition Journal published a further piece of research adding to the growing pile of scientific papers attesting to the powerful impact that a restrictive diet can have on health.
The study, which was carried out retrospectively, involved 1,615 patients who took part in a 10-day residential dietary intervention programme in California between 2002 and 2011. An entirely vegan buffet was laid out for them at mealtimes, comprising a selection of minimally processed plant-based foods, including wheat flour products, rice, oats, corn, barley, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes, vegetables and fruit.
No additional oils (such as olive oil etc) were provided, but, in order to make the food more palatable and culturally acceptable, small amounts of simple sugars, salt and spices did feature, including in condiment sauces, such as ketchup and barbecue sauce. Low-fat desserts containing some sugar were also served, and participants were free to add sugar to their morning cereal. In terms of quantity, food intake was entirely unrestricted.
After seven days, a number of key biomarkers indicative of cardiovascular disease risk were measured, including blood pressure, blood lipids and blood sugar. All of these showed significant improvements, particularly in the most overweight subjects. A median weight loss of 1.4kg was also recorded.
High-carb eating not so bad, after all?
A study such as this one turns received paradigms on their head, showing yet again that there is no one singular “perfect” healthy diet. The food offering provided for study participants differs quite markedly from official healthy eating advice, such as the Eatwell Plate advocated by the UK Food Standards Agency, in which dairy products account for 15% of the plate depicting “optimum” meal composition, or the USDA’s MyPlate arrangement, which, like the former, is also based on the customary five food groups.
The vegan diet consumed by the study subjects derived fewer than 10% of its calories from fat, around 80% from carbohydrates and the rest from protein. By contrast, the US deems the ideal macronutrient intake split as 20-35% of total calories coming from fat, 45-65% from carbohydrates and 15-25% from protein.
Health and wellness trend watchers will be well aware that, at the moment, it is the high-protein diet that is very much in vogue, while high-carb and/or low-fat regimes are decidedly unpopular right now. The diet on which the study was based, however, was exceedingly high in carbs, very low in fat and fairly low in protein.
If a vegan high-carbohydrate way of eating should gain traction, it would be excellent news indeed for the potato industry, which has seen its fortunes slide over the past two decades. Indeed, Western Europe registered a further 3% decline in fresh potato volume sales in 2013. It would also benefit, of course, bakery products manufacturers. Bread makers in highly industrialised countries have lamented the falling out of favour of their products for years.
On the whole, people very much enjoy consuming carbohydrates, and if a growing body of credible studies could convince consumers that curbing their carb intake is not paramount for achieving weight loss many would be overjoyed. The aforementioned study, just to emphasise the point, did not restrict carbohydrate or calorie intake in any way, and yet, an average weight loss of 1.4kg was achieved within merely a week.
January – the perfect month for embracing veganism
This brings us to the second major point of attraction, namely that the weight loss and the improvement in blood pressure, blood sugar and blood lipid profile recorded by the researchers happened in such a short space of time, ie in just seven days.
Now is the perfect time of year to promote the message that even short-term veganism can work wonders for consumers’ health. January, the uncontested number one month for health-related lifestyle changes, is just around the corner. By the end of the festive season, consumers will have gorged themselves on meat, cream and all manner of fat-laden dishes, causing serious worries in many over having pushed up their cholesterol levels to perilous heights. At the start of the new year, most will be positively craving lighter meals composed of fresh fruit and vegetables, potatoes and wholesome grains.
The prospect of going vegan for a week or two after a prolonged period of overindulgence is not really all that scary, especially if it promises a significant health boost, including weight loss, without having to go to bed feeling hungry. In fact, going vegan for a while could well be the new detox.